Commentary: Why Children Need to Spend Time in Nature

Photo: Morakot Kawinchan/

Commentary: Why Children Need to Spend Time in Nature

How the natural world can be therapeutic

By Mark and Sue Lim | 22 April 2020

Disclaimer: This is a critical period in the fight against COVID-19 and we need to exercise social responsibility and stay home as much as we can. However, with some creativity, we may be able to find small pockets of nature within or near our own homes.

Our family once attended a bird park “class” with a group of fellow parents and kids. Every week we would meet at the bird park, where a parent would volunteer to lead a lesson on a particular species, with lesson plans and activities all laid out for the children.

There was one particular session that Mark will always remember. For that session, the parent-in-charge directed all of us to the penguin enclosure. “Children, I would like you to observe the penguins very carefully,” she directed. “Do you think that penguins sleep with their eyes open or closed? Why?” And with that she allowed the kids to spend the rest of the time wandering around the enclosure.

During the parents’ debriefing, we were asked what we thought the purpose of the session was. After we went round sharing the possible reasons, she smiled and said, “My purpose was simple. If our kids can spend just a few more minutes observing the penguins, they would have grown in their powers of observation, and that’s more than enough learning for the day.”

But why do we and our children need nature? It is all about building the imagination and honing the thinking process.

What nature can teach us

There is indeed much for us to observe in nature. When the sun rises each day, the natural world bursts into a cacophony of sights and sounds. And this continues throughout the day, even after the sun bids farewell and night takes over. Nature never sleeps. The rise and fall of the tides, or the rustling of the trees; they all dance to a rhythm that is unceasing.

But why do we and our children need nature? 19th century educationalist Charlotte Mason presents an interesting perspective. She says that it is all about building the imagination and honing the thinking process. “Every walk should offer some knotty problem for the children to think out, ‘Why does that leaf float on the water, and this pebble sink?’ and so on.”

According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, humans have an innate affinity for the natural world. He argues that when children spend most of their time indoors, problems such as depression, obesity, and attention deficit disorder may arise.

We all need the outdoors. Nature calms our souls and reminds us of our place in the world. These are gloomy times we are living in, and the isolation and anxiety caused by COVID-19 can have adverse effects on the human spirit. But when we take a walk in a forest or witness a spider busily spinning its intricate web, it reminds us that life in the natural world is proceeding as usual. And things may not be as out of control as they seem.

For us, outdoor time is a priority and a discipline. We go out whether we feel like it or not, in the mornings or evenings when it is cooler. We are thankful to live by the beach, as it has become our usual hangout.

Of course, with the recent circuit-breaker measures intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus, beaches have been closed. But there may be small pockets of nature near your home where you can go to exercise and still be socially responsible. (Remember to wear your mask and keep an appropriate distance from others!)

Nature calms our souls and reminds us of our place in the world.

Some tips for spending time in nature:

1. Leave it unstructured

The kids will surprise you with what they initiate without adult interference. The other day, our boys made a catapult-cum-indoor gym with driftwood they collected from the shore.

2. Learn to slow down

It is easy to continue with the pace of life that we have been used to, except now we are mostly on our devices, absorbing all the daily updates on the COVID-19 situation. When you are out and about, keep your devices away and just observe nature going about its tasks. The slowing down is good for our souls, and it can also help our kids relieve stress and anxiety.

3. Let nature speak to you

There are many lessons we can learn from nature. It does not hurry, it is not anxious, and there is much intelligence in its design. Have conversations with the kids about what they notice. Our family keeps a nature journal where the kids sometimes sketch what they see on our walks, or scribble down their observations about various wildlife they encounter.

If it is not convenient to head out, just sit by a large window or balcony, and listen out for birds or observe the different shades of greens and browns of the trees. During this period, the Kruger National Park in South Africa is publishing live safari drives on its Wild Earth YouTube channel, so be sure to tune in with your kids.

There are many lessons we can learn from nature. It does not hurry, it is not anxious, and there is much intelligence in its design.

4. Learn the names of local flora and fauna

Naming the creatures and plants that we see gives us a sense of familiarity with our surroundings. It also broadens our knowledge of the natural world. I am quite proud of the fact that we can now recognise an olive-backed sunbird or an Asian glossy starling, where previously they were all just “birds"!

5. Keep a pet or care for plants

Staying indoors the whole day can be depressing and a pet can be a good “distraction” for you. But do make this decision carefully as keeping a pet is a long-term commitment.

Our sons love all types of creatures and at our time we were keeping fighting fish, praying mantises, jumping spiders and guinea pigs (though not all at the same time)! We currently have a pet terrapin, a rainbow crab and a queen ant; the kids learn to be responsible for feeding them as well as watering the plants every day.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

As we take time to enjoy all that nature has to offer, it is helpful to also remember that no matter how bad the COVID-19 situation feels, that it too will pass, and we will one day be able to be out again in the open without our masks, and without the fear of contracting a serious disease.

Mark and Sue Lim are consultants at The Social Factor, a company which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, counselling, mentoring and special needs. They co-write a blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys aged 9 and 7. This article is a longer version of an earlier piece from the Learning at Home series, first featured by Homeschool Singapore to help young families manage the COVID-19 situation in Singapore.

© 2020 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.


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